Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

TAC Bookshelf: Impossible Germany

A Small Town in Germany feels truer today than it ought.
John le Carré

Jude Russo, managing editor: A new political movement in Germany threatens to sweep the establishment parties from power. It criticizes Europeanism and liberal cultural imperialism; it seeks detente with the Russian East and a revival of working-class German fortunes. Its supporters are a mix of farmers, workers, students, veterans, and old and sometimes unsavory characters from the nationalist underground. The Atlanticist powers and sclerotic postwar German establishment are paralyzed—hostile, but hesitant to take decisive (albeit unconstitutional) measures against the movement.

It’s not Alternative für Deutschland in 2024; it’s the fictional Karfeld movement in John le Carré’s 1968 espionage thriller, A Small Town in Germany. Set in the gray years of British embarrassment as the UK negotiates for membership in the then-embryonic EU, le Carré’s hard-eyed pan of West German disgruntlement and Anglo-American hypocrisy feels truer today than it has any right to do: The plot, like most of le Carré’s greatest novels, is premised on the particulars of paper data management systems—a world of technique and protocol entirely swept away by the digital revolution. Card catalogs may be gone with the last century, but Central Europe’s resentments are eternal.